Friday, 7 May 2021

CINEMA REBORN - Susan Potter's Introduction to FILIBUS (Mario Roncoroni. Italy, 1915) and a plea for adequate funding for our national collecting institutions

I’d like to acknowledge that we are here today on the land of the Gadigal and Bidjigal peoples who traditionally occupied the Sydney coast. 
I acknowledge Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people attending today and I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

Welcome to the screening of the 1915 film Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate, the first silent film to be screened in the Cinema Reborn Film Festival—I hope there will be many more! My name is Susan Potter, and among other things I teach silent cinema at the University of Sydney, and I am delighted to introduce this film. If you’ve read my program note on the director Mario Roncoroni, and on the film, you might be able to tell how much I love it! 

For a long time Filibusexisted as a badly subtitled and very murky colour print. The restoration that you are about to see is the result of a very successful partnership between the EYE Filmmuseum of the Netherlands, and US independent film and video distributor Milestone Films.Once you see a restored print like this you can really get an idea of why early cinema was such an extraordinary experience for audiences in the early 20thcenturies. Filibusmanages to combine dream-like tinted and toned colour footage, crazy comic-book plotlines, and thrilling action. With nods to the more perverse Louis Feuillade-directed crime serial Fantômas (1913-14), it is a delirious proto-queer feminist caper centered on the exploits of its eponymous master criminal. 

A brief history of the EYE print

Filibuswas produced by the Turin-based company Corona Film. Its release in 1915 was not ideal given the start of WWI in the previous year. Remarkably the film remained in circulation for nine years up until 1924, most notably through the commercial enterprise of Dutch film distributor Jean Desmet. In the 1930s the print was donated to the EYE Filmmuseum where it became part of their flagship Desmet Collection. It has had various retrospective festival screenings since then, but as Denis Doros of Milestone Films says in his online introductionFilibus was otherwise forgotten. Denis says that the forgetting of Filibusis, quite bluntly, down to bad film historians. I partly agree though I’d put it slightly differently. What has contributed to this forgetting is a certain tendency to focus on film as the work of auteurs, as art rather than popular culture, and a tendency to dismiss short films or serials made prior to the so-called golden age of silent cinema of the late 1920s. Historians who have focused on early film as popular culture, and also feminist film historians, have in past two decades made important contributions to the work of historical recovery that has supported the remembering of films like Filibus. If we look back to the 1910s, we can see how Filibus  emerges in the context of the enormous popularity not only of crime serials like Fantômas, but also the American action melodramas starring female stars who often performed their own daring stunts. Filibus was originally planned as a serial and without the impact of the WWI, we might imagine that Valeria Crespi would have gone on to be an international star alongside the great serial queens Pearl White and Helen Holmes.

Credit where credit is due

I first saw Filibusin ideal conditions, at the home of its restoration in Amsterdam, at the EYE Filmmuseum in 2019. I was lucky enough to be given a behind-the-scenes tour of EYE, including the nitrate room and the digital scanning lab. I met some of those at EYE involved in helping to restore the film, whether directly as digital technicians, archivists or those with responsibility in making decisions to commit resources to the film’s restoration: they include Annike Kross, Frank Roumen, Giovanna Fossati, Jan Scholten, Jeroen de Mol, and Leenke Ripmeester.

I think it’s important that we acknowledge the expertise, skill, labour and commitment of everyone who has contributed to the restoration and distribution and rediscovery of Filibus, including the Cinema Reborn team. Restoration involves more than decisions to commit resources, or the technical restoration of film stock and colour. It also involved in this case a new translation of the English subtitles by the silent cinema archivist at EYE, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi. If you’ve read the program note and links, you’ll also know that Milestone hired a poet, Austin Renna, to write new inter-titles based on Elif’s new translation, and a graphic designer Allen Perkins to design the subtly quirky font for the inter-titles. I should also mention that the restoration by Milestone includes two new alternative music scores, one by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and the other by Donald Sosin.

The partnership between EYE and Milestone has also led to new discoveries: without the work of Milestone’s intern David Amery, we would not know the identity of the actress who plays Filibus, who was for many years incorrectly identified as Cristina Ruspoli who in fact plays another character in the film, Leonora, the detective’s sister.

As I’ve intimated, to do a restoration well requires commitment and resources of various kinds, including financial resources, and government support. The question of archives and their funding is in the news at the moment with collections in the National Archives of Australia, and audiovisual collections in particular, at risk without further resources and efforts to ensure their preservation. As Professor of History at Macquarie University, Michelle Arrow, wrote in The Conversation this week (and see also her Sydney Morning Herald article), these materials are “on the brink of a ‘digital cliff’: that is, where a combination of material fragility and redundant technology will destroy a huge audiovisual archive.” But it’s not just the National Archives of Australia. As she also notes, and as is common knowledge in the sector, since the late 80s Federal Governments have directly or indirectly squeezed funding from archives and libraries, including the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. I hope that a campaign to properly fund the NAA might extend to other cultural institutions, including the NFSA.

Without such commitments, a film like Filibus might not have been restored. Its existence in its glorious restored form is testament to the expertise of an array of people dedicated to preserving and providing public access to the rich artefacts of our global film histories and cultures. I hope you enjoy it!


Editor's Note: This is the first to be published of the ten introductions that were made at  Cinema Reborn 2021. Others will be posted in due course

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